The Angel of Mons – a popular story about a group of angels who supposedly protected members of the British army in the Battle of Mons – is perhaps the most enduring supernatural legend of the First World War. The battle of Mons took place on 23 August 1914 and within weeks tales of the ‘Angel of Mons’ had entered the realms of legend. It arose from a belief during the Great War that a miracle had happened during the British Army’s first desperate clash with the advancing Germans at Mons in Belgium. In some versions a vision of St George and phantom bowmen halted the Kaiser’s troops, while others claimed angels had thrown a protective curtain around the British, saving them from disaster. By the end of the war it became unpatriotic, even treasonable, to doubt the claims were based on fact. The spread of the legend was aided by the publication on 29 September 1914 by Welsh author Arthur Machen of a short story entitled The Bowmen, which was inspired by accounts that he had read of the fighting at Mons and an idea he had had soon after the battle. Machen’s story was written from a first-hand perspective and was a kind of false document, a technique he knew well. The unintended result, however, was that Machen had a number of requests to provide evidence for his sources for the story soon after its publication, from readers who thought it was true, to which he responded that it was completely imaginary (he had no desire to create a hoax). The only link between the Mons retreat and Machen’s story, in fact, was its beginning, which observed that troops of the British Expeditionary Force were in retreat: Mons itself was not mentioned. However, to this day, the myth and the short story have become intertwined so inextricably that it is almost impossible to unravel which was the inspiration for the other.
First let us look at the Machen short story. Arthur Machen was basically a jobbing journalist and fiction writer in London in the early years of the last century. For years he lived in a shabby rented room, churning out articles and short stories until he accidentally found fame with his story about cut-off British troops being rescued from the Germans by a ghostly St George and his archers from Agincourt. The story was published in The London Evening News and, despite Machen’s insistence that it was purely imaginary, rapidly became regarded as true and the centre of the ‘Angel of Mons’ legend that has persisted to this day. So entrenched did belief in the account become that claims were even made that the corpses of dead German soldiers had actually been found at Mons, their bodies pierced by arrow wounds. The Bowmen (click to read!) has subsequently often been cited as fact in histories of the supernatural as well as inspiring a virtual library of ‘faction’ ghost stories set during wartime. Most bizarrely of all, veterans of the battle subsequently lent support to Machen’s story, ensuring that the apparent visions took on a legendary quality both during and after the war. For a while, towards the end of 1914 and into 1915, many people in Britain apparently gave Machen’s story some credence, somewhat to the embarrassment of the latter, who continued to deny any element of fact in his story, writing “the story itself is nothing” – a stance which merely heaped sceptical disbelief upon him.
Now let’s look at the facts. On August 22-23,1914, the first major engagement of the British Expeditionary Force in the First World War occurred at the Battle of Mons. Advancing German forces were thrown back by heavily outnumbered British troops, who suffered heavy casualties and, being outflanked, were forced into rapid retreat the next day. The retreat and the battle were rapidly perceived by the British public as being a key moment in the war. Despite the censorship going on in Britain at the time, this battle was the first indication the British public had that defeating Germany would not be as easy as some had thought. Considering the numbers of German troops involved in the battle, the British ability to hold them off for as long as they did seemed remarkable, and army recruitment shot up in the weeks that followed. If nothing else the Battle of Mons (and the fantasy that it inspired) proved a remarkable morale booster in Britain at a time when military success on the battlefield was proving elusive. The sudden spread of rumours of further battlefield visions in the spring of 1915, six months after the events and Machen’s story was published, is also of note. The stories published then often attributed their sources to anonymous British officers. It is speculated that these men may have been part of a covert attempt by military intelligence to spread morale-boosting propaganda and disinformation. Since it was a time of allied problems, with the Lusitania sinking, Zeppelin attacks and failure to achieve a breakthrough on the Western Front, the timing would make military sense (also, some of the stories conveniently claimed that sources could not be revealed for security reasons).
An interesting postscript to the legend occurred at the dawn of this century. In 2001, an article in The Sunday Times claimed that a diary, film and photographic evidence proving the existence of the Angels of Mons from a World War I soldier named William Doidge had been found. The article discussed Doidge’s involvement with an American GI and an angel seen years later in Woodchester Mansion. It was claimed Marlon Brando and Tony Kaye were going to spend £350,000 to buy the evidence to make a film. Other papers like Variety and the Los Angeles Times, as well as television programmes, soon followed up the story and a website connected to the mystery became very popular. The footage was supposedly found in a trunk in an antique shop by Danny Sullivan in Monmouth, close to Machen’s birthplace of Caerleon. In 2002 in a BBC Radio documentary The Making of an Urban Myth Sullivan admitted the story was a complete hoax to drum up interest in Woodchester Mansion; the footage and soldier never existed! As for Machen himself, he was associated with the story for the rest of his life and grew sick of the connection, since he regarded The Bowmen as a poor piece of work. His bitterness is perhaps understandable – he made little money from the story, either at the time or later. Nevertheless, the Angel of Mons remains one of the most famous ‘accidental hoaxes’ in history.